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Mohenjo-daro is an archaeological site in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. Photo: Shutterstock

Review | India’s genetic ‘pizza’: new evidence of early Indians’ influence and how Aryans, Sanskrit and Vedas were latecomers

  • Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians shows how understanding the human genome is changing people’s ideas about archaeology
  • It also challenges the Eurocentric perspective on early human civilisations, and may upset Indians who believe their unique culture began 4,000 years ago

Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From by Tony Joseph, pub. Juggernaut. 4/5 stars

The use of first-person plurals in the title of Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From should not put non-Indians off.

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Based on and catalysed by the most recent genetic research, Tony Joseph has written a clear, readable and, for those unfamiliar with the subject, fascinating history of Indians as a people. It will also serve both as a primer to the way the ability to read the human genome is revolutionising archaeology as well as a counterpoint to the Eurocentric perspective of many treatments of early human history.

What is now India had the world’s largest human population around 20,000 years ago, partly because modern humans got to India early, something like 65,000 years ago. Although there is some argument about this date, and whether isolated bands might have it made it there earlier, this is far earlier than Homo sapiens made it to Europe, the route to which seems to have been blocked by some combination of poor weather and Neanderthals.

The genetic ancestry of these first Indians “still constitutes between 50 and 65 per cent for most population groups”. (In Europe, by contrast, “the percentage of the original hunter-gatherer ancestry has gone down to single digits” due to a couple of large population replacements in the past 10,000 years.)

Mohenjo-daro was rediscovered in the 1920s. Photo: Shutterstock

The people of the first Indian civilisation – the Harappan, also known as the “Indus Valley civilisation” – came from the Zagros region in what is now Iran and spoke proto-Dravidian. Finally, the self-styled “Aryans” arrived around 4,000 years ago with the horse and chariot, and what would become Sanskrit and the Vedas.

Joseph goes into mostly readable detail about how genetic fingerprints are read and compared to deduce this. Little of this is particularly controversial – outside, it seems, India itself – nor necessarily dependent on DNA data. Indeed, genetics has largely confirmed and augmented what was already known from archaeological and linguistic evidence.

It has been known for a couple of centuries that Sanskrit was part of the language family now called Indo-European, which includes everything from English and Spanish to Greek, Persian and Hindi, but not the Dravidian languages of southern India.

Characters on a yellow sandstone wall, part of the ruins of the royal cenotaphs of ancient Maharajas in Bada Bagh in Jaisalmer, India. Photo: Shutterstock

Joseph notes that India appears to have a level of genetic diversity matched only by Africa. Research has also made it clear that the Indian population is, in the author’s not entirely elegant metaphor, a “pizza” with a genetic crust of first Indians dating back some 60,000 to 70,000 years, with sauce and toppings of the various peoples that came later.

The book deftly ties a great deal of recent research together, drawing on results from the Americas – which provide evidence of how fast Stone Age people can disperse and populate entire continents – Europe and Australia.

Joseph’s extensive use of the first-person plural makes it clear whom he is writing for. That may be slightly annoying for the non Indian reader, but doesn’t really detract from the book, and in some ways grounds it; furthermore, for Western non- Indians, it’s merely getting a taste of our own medicine.

However, Joseph is writing in, and pushing back against, a pernicious political environment. These findings may upset those whose model is of a unique Indian culture and people dating back to the dawn of the Vedas, and who therefore have trouble with the idea that Harappa, India’s entry in the ancient civilisations stakes, constitutes a separate tradition.

A young brahmin reads an ancient Hindu text. Photo: Shutterstock

In this context, Joseph argues not just the science, but also – again, rather uncontroversially – that Indian culture is itself, like the population, the result of diverse sources, Harappan among them. “There is,” he writes, a disconnect between the earliest Vedas and the culture and practices of the Harappan civilisation, but a connect between the later Vedic corpus and the Harappan civilisation because these by then incorporate some of the ideas and themes of the Harappans.

And then there is the matter of caste. Joseph reports the (somewhat disturbing) result that “the traditional custodians of the Sanskrit language, the upper castes in general or the Brahmins in particular” have “elevated Steppe ancestry”. Joseph, however, quotes new studies that show that “between 2200BC and AD100, there was extensive intermingling between the different Indian populations with the result that almost all Indians had acquired First Indian, Harappan and Steppe ancestries”.

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This intermixing stopped around AD100, which Joseph says indicates the establishment of the caste system in India did not coincide with the arrival of the “Aryans”, but came about two millennia later.

The cover of Early Indians.

Those so inclined can, from the first result, still conclude that caste has some basis other than being a mere social construct.

This all leads into some uncomfortable terrain. It’s one thing to use genetic research to help determine which people went where and when, and counter exclusionary national myths. But it may prove a double-edged sword to then use science to build a new myth or narrative that, regardless of its appeal to tolerance (“We are all Indians. And we are all migrants.”), still has considerable genetic content.

Joseph writes with an infectious enthusiasm. Although the research continues apace and therefore the picture may not remain quite as Joseph describes it, Early Indians is both a readable overview of India’s early history as well as a primer on how advances in human genetics – but also linguistics and other sciences – have revolutionised our understanding of prehistory.

The book’s subtitle is likely to mean that this fascinating tale will not circulate outside India as much as it deserves to. The story merits an “international” edition.

Asian Review of Books